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Cornell University

Publication Date

Fall 2011

Program Name

China: Language, Cultures, and Ethnic Minorities


A popular idiom in China is nángēngnǚzhì: men plow, women weave. This ubiquitous saying reflects traditional gender roles in agriculture throughout Chinese history, how men traditionally were in charge of the land, while women took care of tasks within the home, such as making clothes for the family. The cloth used to weave usually came from cotton.[1] In this regard, both men and women have always had roles to play in agriculture in China, but from different facets.

While recognizing that women and men have played different roles in Chinese agriculture, my field study examines the role of women in agriculture today in two particular communities in Yunnan Province. Specifically, I look at whether and how family structure influences the role of women in agriculture in these communities. By observing and interviewing women in one patriarchal society, the Bai of Shaxi, and a matriarchal one, the Mosuo of Lugu Lake, I can hypothesize the differences and similarities in women’s roles in agriculture, and infer what that might signify for women in agriculture in Southwestern China as a whole. On the basis of this examination, I conclude that there are far more similarities than differences across the two family structures and that these are primarily explained by the changing cultures and priorities of each which are affecting both groups in similar ways.

[1] Hinsch, Bret. "The Origins of Separation of the Sexes in China." Journal of the American Oriental Society 123.3 (2003): 595-616. Jstor. Web. 30 Nov. 2011: 598


Agriculture | Family, Life Course, and Society | Women's Studies


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